DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The man who led last year's coup in Mali, reversing two decades of democracy, has been summoned by the nation's judiciary to answer allegations that he and his men tortured and killed fellow soldiers who didn't back his rise to power, an official in the ministry of justice confirmed on Friday.
In addition calling for Gen. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the judge issued a mandatory summons for 16 other soldiers implicated in the crimes, the first step in holding the military accountable, said senior researcher for Human Rights Watch Corinne Dufka, speaking by telephone from Bamako, the Malian capital.
The summons is not an arrest, but the rights group is hopeful that the move indicates the judiciary is going to eventually file charges against the country's military strongman.
"The jury is still out on whether they will they will arrest Sanogo," said Dufka. "This is obviously a real test of the independence of the judiciary under the new government."
The news that Sanogo will be questioned comes as the Dutch government has announced that it will send 368 troops and four Apache helicopters to join the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali's volatile north.
Amadou Haya Sanogo was a captain when a mutiny broke out at a military barracks on the outskirts of the Malian capital on March 21, 2012. Within hours the rioting soldiers had marched to the nearby presidential palace, finding it empty. The nation's democratically elected leader had fled on foot, and his presidential guard had retreated without a fight. By the next day, Sanogo declared that he was in "total control" of the country. And within a week, he was sitting in an air-conditioned office, surrounded by men who referred to him as "Le President."
The coup, however, was not backed by everyone in the military. Among the dissenters were the elite paratroopers, known as the "Red Berets," who had made up the core of the former leader's presidential guard. When they attempted a countercoup, Sanogo cracked down, and soldiers not aligned with the junta began being picked up in the middle of the night. Human Rights Watch documented the disappearance of at least 20 soldiers on May 2, 2012 who were seen being transferred onto a truck, their hands and legs bound.
The mother of one disappeared soldier told Human Rights Watch that her son had gotten access to a cell phone and called to say the military personnel detaining him were arguing about whether to execute him. The few soldiers who made it out alive described horrific torture, including being kicked in the back, head, ribs, and genitals. Others said they were stabbed in their extremities and burned with cigarettes and lighters on their backs, hands, arms, and ears, said a statement issued by Human Rights Watch on Friday.
Sanogo's spokesman Lt. Mohamed Coulibaly denied the allegations in a telephone interview on Friday. "He is clean," he said.
Under intense international pressure, Sanogo agreed to hand back the country to a transitional government in early 2012, though he remained the real power behind the throne, until new elections were held this July. The new government has moved to sideline Sanogo, including forcing him to move out of the Kati barracks into a residential neighborhood, putting him out of arm's reach of the camp's armory.
The ministry of justice official said that Sanogo has also lost much of the support he once had with the rank-and-file, because of the fact that he promised the troops money and housing. "They are frustrated because he made promises and in fact he kept everything for himself. ... People see his wife going to the department store, buying thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise," he said. "This is a woman who before the coup sold beignets on the side of the street."
AP writer Mike Corder contributed to this report from The Hague, Netherlands.